Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Beyond the Ride of Paul Revere

"Paul Revere's ride" by Office of War Information - National Archives' Pictures of the Revolutionary War

by Michael M. Greenburg
author of The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America's Forgotten Military Disaster (ForeEdge; October 7, 2014)

The story of Paul Revere in popular American culture really begins in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, about forty-three years after Revere’s death. A New England poet and well-know abolitionist by the name of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, upon a visit to the North Church and Copp’s Burial Ground, found inspiration for his seminal work, "Paul Revere’s Ride" which was published in the January, 1861 issue of The Atlantic. The poem would galvanize the Union cause with a metaphorical call for courage and urgency – and forever clothe the man with a cloak of valor, deserved or not. 

Prior to Longfellow’s poem, Revere had been known locally as a competent goldsmith, a successful entrepreneur, and a dedicated member of the Sons of Liberty, but his midnight ride on April 18, 1775 had been all but lost to history. Indeed his obituary in 1818 made no mention of this, his seminal moment according to modern history. Though based only loosely on fact, Longfellow’s poem would immediately elevate the name of Paul Revere to iconic and legendary status—a status that even perhaps Revere himself might have found puzzling today. 


When most people today visualize Paul Revere they conjure that heroic lone rider, a la the North End statue or, of course, Longfellow’s mythical figure on a majestic stead. He was, of course, an ardent patriot, but an unbiased view of the record reveals what author and historian Bernard Cornwell, describes as “an extraordinary character; belligerent, touchy, capable, awkward, resentful and unstoppable.” 

And Revere is all of that. There is not a question that he displayed extraordinary courage on the night of April 18, 1775, when he brought the warning of the British march to Hancock and Adams and from Charlestown to Lexington, but it is also quite indisputable that in later years he showed himself to be somewhat petty and confrontational and allowed personality conflicts to interfere with his duty as an officer. Revere was many things, but even as his chief biographer Esther Forbes points out, he was definitely not a soldier.

"Penobscot Expedition" by Dominic Serre

On September 6, 1779, following the disastrous American defeat at the Penobscot Expedition on the coast of Maine, a marine Captain by the name of Thomas J. Carnes delivered an incendiary statement to the Massachusetts Council. In a scathing six-count indictment, Carnes accused the artillery commander of the expedition—Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere—of “disobedience of orders…neglect of duty…and unsoldierlike behavior during the whole expedition to Penobscot which tends to Cowardice.” The complaint would lead Revere into a four-year battle for his reputation that culminated in a trial by court-martial.

Stories of Revere’s personal conduct on the expedition preceded his return to Boston. As a successful businessman, he was extremely independent and unaccustomed to following orders. He was legalistic in his interpretation of rules, and during the expedition he was often combative in the many councils of war that were held to determine strategy. On several occasions he ignored the orders of his superior officers and, as the operation degenerated into failure, he left for home without specific authorization to do so.

During the tense standoff with the British he was seen retiring to one of the ships for meals while the men labored on the cliffs with his artillery, and was accused of actually sleeping on board while all hands had been ordered to remain on shore. Solomon Lovell, the commanding officer of the rebel ground forces commented on several occasions that his artillery commander was nowhere to be found. The implication, of course, was that Revere purposely kept himself out of sight to avoid battle. And, in a stroke of historic irony, Peleg Wadsworth, second in command of land forces at Penobscot—and the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—promised Revere’s immediate arrest as soon as the army could be gathered for failure to follow his orders. Not exactly the Paul Revere that we learned about as children.

Upon his return to Boston, Revere was, in fact, immediately stripped of his command and temporarily placed under house arrest.

So how did Paul Revere go from vigilant patriot to the accused in a court-martial proceeding? We all learned in school about his midnight ride but that is the extent of what most people know about him. The reality is that Revere’s noble service essentially ended on April 19, 1775—and his troubles actually began.

The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America's Forgotten Military Disaster, by Michael M. Greenburg, releases from ForeEdge on October 7th. 

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